Cambodia court convenes for mass treason trial of opposition

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - A court in Cambodia convened on Thursday for the treason trial of scores of opposition figures, one of a series of cases seen by activists as moves by the ruling party to sideline threats to its political monopoly.

The defendants are among 121 people affiliated with the dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) who are charged with treason and incitement.

Of more than 60 defendants summoned to appear on Thursday, 11 showed up, according to Sam Sokong, a defence lawyer who represents dozens of the defendants. The CNRP has said many of the accused are in exile, concerned they would not get a fair hearing.

Sam Sokong said the trial had been adjourned to Jan. 28 and the court had completed the questioning of only one of the accused.

The CNRP was banned and its leader Kem Sokha arrested before the 2018 election, allowing Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party to win every parliamentary seat, prompting international concern.

The charges against party leader Kem Sokha stem from accusations he conspired with the United States to overthrow Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for 36 years. Kem Sokha and Washington reject the accusations.

Cambodia’s ties with the United States have deteriorated in recent years and critics say international pressure on Cambodia over the CPP’s crackdown has moved it deeper into China’s orbit.

Theary Seng, an American-Cambodian lawyer who was among the defendants, told reporters the charges aimed to silence her and described them as “laughable” and the trial as “a show”.

Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director Yamini Mishra in a statement called the mass trials “an affront to international fair trial standards” and Cambodia’s human rights commitments.

U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, Patrick Murphy, on Twitter posted a picture of Theary Seng and said embassy observers were monitoring the trial.

“We have serious concerns about lack of due process and urge Cambodian authorities to preserve the constitutional right to peaceful expression,” Murphy said.

Mu Sochua, CNRP’s deputy president, who is in the United States said in an email she would lead exiled party members and activists to Cambodia on Sunday to defend themselves in court, which she said was duty-bound to enable their return.

Mu Sochua said authorities were spreading fear to discourage opposition supporters from rallying behind their leaders.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan said defendants would be allowed to return to Cambodia but must abide by the court’s decision.

“We don’t cause any trouble for them ... they can come freely,” he said.

Additional reporting by Kay Johnson; Editing by Martin Petty, Ed Davies, William Mallard and Simon Cameron-Moore